A new chef nests at Three Birds Tavern

Chef Domenica Macchia's latest roost.

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click to enlarge BUTTERING US UP: Chicken and waffles are enlivened by large scoops of maple butter. - James Ostrand
James Ostrand
BUTTERING US UP: Chicken and waffles are enlivened by large scoops of maple butter.

Domenica Macchia, CL's Best of the Bay-winning chef of 2009, held so much promise, so much spit and vinegar, it was easy to become entranced by her passion for cooking. And the food she did cook held much the same promise, approaching and sometimes achieving greatness.

But, whether through the whims of fate or her own choices, she has bounced around the Pinellas restaurant scene like a beach ball at a Jimmy Buffett concert. First it was the ill-fated MJ's Martini and Tapas, then she was attached to the now-defunct Shackleton's Folly (although she gave up on them long before their troubles). After that it was Diner 437, then Bella Brava. That last one seemed like a good fit, but — for whatever reason — it didn't stick.

Now Macchia is newly settled at St. Petersburg's Three Birds Tavern, the bar/restaurant that took over Limey's a little over a year ago. Although some of owner Robin King's changes rankled old-time fans of the venerable Limey's, there's no denying that the place has been spiffed up, with a new courtyard and better food.

Macchia's menu — which debuted last month — extends the Three Birds culinary vibe with a few touches that are distinctly her own.

Like the chicken-fried bacon. Coated in a crust of flaky batter, thick strips of cooked bacon are deep-fried, then drizzled with a sweet maple glaze. It's way too much pork fat and sugar, but delicious nonetheless, and very Domenica. So is creamy, simple chicken liver pate beside a stack of rich toasted egg bread, a flashback to 1970s cocktail parties that will likely have you thinking of serving it at your next get-together.

There's still more typical bar food, of course, like wings that are fried better and coated in more complex toppings than those you'll find at most bars, and disappointing pretzels that are surrounded in a deep brown crust but taste like typical breadsticks.

The rest of the menu relies more heavily on homey standards, with a slew of burgers and sandwiches, meatloaf and chicken. Macchia can't resist slipping in a few treats for her fans, however, like chicken and waffles topped by a disturbingly large scoop of maple butter. The waffle is a bit flat, but the fried breast meat is crunchy and fabulous and that ice cream scoop of sweet butter turns out to be just the right size, for flavor if not for your arteries.

Pork tenderloin is cooked just right, the well-seasoned but otherwise subtle meat given substance thanks to a sticky-sweet apple compote on top. Macchia's meatloaf is more traditional than expected, tender and loose and dominated by the tart taste of reduced tomato.

That does not mean that Macchia can't do veggies, when she chooses to. Three Birds' vegetable pie is a rich stew of squash and peppers, with a sizable dollop of creamy mashed potatoes in the center. It is a truly satisfying dish, heavy but lightened by a powerful dose of black pepper, that even deep-fried bacon fans might be able to get behind.

Read the above and you might get the impression that Macchia's food is the sole reason to head to Three Birds Tavern, but that's not the case. The place is an almost ideal neighborhood hangout — especially this time of year — thanks to the veranda that stretches along the converted wooden house and the new, massive concrete courtyard. Although the food is thoughtful, the atmosphere is decidedly casual, with great beer on tap and the kind of service that encourages you to linger for an hour or two.

Let's hope Macchia will be able to settle down at the inviting Three Birds Tavern and get comfortable, just like the customers.

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